The City of Legends and Dreams
by Bernie Santos, Jr.
Bernie Santos, Jr., is a frequent contributor to The Mexico File. He and his wife, Angela, live in Puerto Vallarta full time. They have a web page devoted to Vallarta (www.pvconnect.com) and maintain a popular online newsletter called The Tucan News.
If by chance you were meandering around the northwest state of Sonora and headed due east from the city of Navojoa, (Navojoa is located off Highway 15, about an eight hour drive south of the Nogales international border between the northern town of Cuidad Obregon and El Fuerte to the south), you’d shortly drive directly into what you may well think is a small picturesque town in Europe. In fact you’d be in Alamos, a mini-Oaxaca, just 33m/55k on a good paved two-lane road, winding its way east over hilly terrain, nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains.
Some of the larger travel books (such as our Frommer’s) made no mention of it at all. Our trusty AAA Travelbook gave Alamos a half page of historical detail. While Sanborn’s Travelog written by “Mexico” Mike Nelson gave it a glowing report. Mike starts right off “Congratulations! You’ve chosen to stay in one of the jewels of the west coast.” We heartily agree!
The drive almost dumps you into the main square, the Plaza de Armas, surrounded by coffee houses, shops, restaurants, city hall, tourist office and the quaint church. The Iglesia de la Inmaculada Concepcion (Church of the Immaculate Conception), built in the early 19th century, has the traditional exterior look of worn stone silently weathering countless decades, while the interior has a starkly simple, almost contemporary, design.
Like many Mexican towns, Alamos, which means “Cottonwood Trees,” was first settled by the Spaniards. Explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado set up camp in the area as early as 1540. It wasn’t until two centuries later that silver was discovered, bringing mining, exploitation, investors and a swelling population of 30,000 by 1781. Eventually the mines became depleted, and then later followed Indian attacks, droughts and the 1910 Revolution. Many abandoned the town, leaving the buildings to deteriorate. Over the years artists and retirees slowly started to settle in town, restoring old homes and buildings. Today it’s a national historic monument and is the state’s most authentic ‘Mexican’ destination.
Since we had arrived in the early afternoon, we decided to drive around a bit and also look at some place to drop our bags. With the exception of the mines, which are ten miles out, just about everything can be easily covered by a short ride or even on foot. Most of the better hotels are situated minutes from the main plaza.
The Hacienda de los Santos is the largest and most expensive, one of the ‘Small Luxury Hotels of the World.’ Rates start at $115 for a superior room which is not even on the premises. In between the main Plaza and the Hacienda de los Santos was the Casa de los Tesoros (House of Treasures), which we liked immediately. A beautiful converted 18th century convent with big rustic wooden doors, a small but lovely courtyard, bar-restaurant, pool, A/C (not needed), fireplace (needed), the hotel fee includes breakfast. Credit cards are accepted. A big plus was that they accepted pets which would allow our cocker spaniel to sleep indoors instead of in the car. Rate: $80 dollars.
Other good mentionables are: Casa Encantada, Hotel Los Portales, Hotel La Posada, Casa Obregon, and the Motel Dolisa. With the exception of the Casa Encantada, which is expensive, the prices are of a moderate rate, good accommodations and value.
The large door to our room opened forth to a spacious clean habitat with high ceiling, a worn cold slab floor partly covered by a beautiful colorful rug, a window which also doubled as a door to a small balcony, a small but effective fireplace with a good supply of dry wood and oil, a closet, a clean but rather small bathroom with shower, and two warm comfortable queen size beds.
Once we were settled, we hopped in the SUV and headed out onto the cobble-stone street. Immediately we came across a small sign stating “El Mirador.” We followed the arrow to the left which led out of town, up a steep bumpy hill (walkable, but be in shape!), and to the top of a bluff clearing which had the best view of the valley and the town of Alamos below. The Church marks the Plaza area with numerous Spanish arches projecting outward like spokes on a wheel. In the high-season, the air was crisp and cool, the sky a bright blue against the lush green hills, while sounds of merriment carried up from way below. Low season (summer), we understand, would be wet, hot and humid, even though the glossy brochures at the local tourist office proclaim otherwise.
We left the vehicle back at the hotel and strolled the plaza. We found a tasty lunch on the sidewalk at Las Palmeras, located across from the church but at a busy traffic intersection. The restaurant was known more for its breakfasts, which seemed to make sense as our small lunch came accompanied with a mound of mushy macaroni instead of the traditional rice and/or beans. Still the entrée was good and the site provided a good vantage point to watch life go by. Other good restaurant mentionables that we heard about are: Los Sabinos, Siete Mares, and El Caracol.
No sooner had we set foot on the cobblestone street once again than we were unexpectedly approached by a stocky tall Mexican speaking excellent English. Hesitant at first, the fellow turned out to be a tourguide and worked parttime at the tourist office. We decided to take the one-hour tour of Alamos by Jose Trinidad, aka “Candy Joe,” and paid the $20 fee. He stated that he is in the ‘Mexican Jumping Bean’ business, but as it was off-season for the little beans, he supplemented his income by giving tours.
Alamos is where the Mexican jumping beans originated. The bean is actually a small, three-section nut with a tiny worm in each section. The movement of the worm makes the nut ‘jump’ and it continues to jump through the summer until it finally burrows its way out and dies.
We drove a few miles east to an area called ‘gringo gulch.’ Here one could find the large restored homes of the mining era, now worth millions, and the homes of celebrities such as Bing Crosby, Carol O’Connor, Mary Astor, and the Hershey family. As we drove around, Jose pointed out the high curb banks which guard against the ‘monsoon’ of the summertime. A bit further out were homes of even bigger proportions. Jose said these were homes of the very wealthy who rent out their villas to Northerners who would pay the large bucks for a Mexican style gaming safari. Our guide mentions that about 200 Americans and 50 Canadians live in the area.
On the northeast outskirts of the town sits the ancient cemetery. The first thing that becomes obvious is that the centuries-old tombs sit stacked above the ground, as was the military custom back in the days of the revolutions. Unfortunately, because of their easy accessibility, many had been vandalized, looted, and/or destroyed. We saw a lot of history in this square acre of land as we wandered around generals and soldiers of the 18th century.
Back on the road toward town we came across another plaza, smaller than the Plaza de Armas, with a large rectangular promenade surrounded by shops, restaurants, bars and carefree people of all sorts enjoying the day. As it turned out this plaza was right around the corner from the main plaza. As we enjoyed the last of our tour back in the main square, Jose pointed out official looking buildings that had once been glorious indeed.
One of the buildings, the former home of a silver baron, once had solid silver stepping stones leading from the front door to the church where his daughter was to be married. The steps, of course, are now gone, and the home is now a government building and the location of the small tourist office.
We exchanged pleasant goodbyes with our helpful guide and asked him for his recommendation for a good place for dinner. Coincidentally he mentioned the restaurant located at our hotel. And a good recommendation it was. We had quiet drinks in the cozy bar overseen by Jose Luis, who strangely enough, runs the local AA group! And then we had an excellent dinner in the dining room, under the stars.
It was an interesting side trip, one that should not be missed, especially if you are passing through Navojoa and would like to take the time to smell the uh, cottonwood trees.